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Columbia College’s Core Curriculum was instituted with the objective of fostering a bent of creative thinking in the domains of Literature, Humanities and Contemporary Civilisation. Twenty-two sophomores gather every year and deliberate on seminal events, personalities and ideas that have and continue to influence contemporary society. Philip Kitcher takes a course on John Stuart Mill as part of the Core Curriculum. “On John Stuart Mill” is a collection of gleanings from the lectures. The book specifically concentrates on Mill as a conflicted character trying to achieve a degree of compatibility between principles espoused in two of his most popular works, Utilitarianism and On Liberty, which upon independent readings seem to be at logger heads with each other.
The prodigious Mill started learning Greek at three, absorbed the intricacies of Latin & Hebrew even before he reached his teens. James Mill, John’s father extended the rigours of his son’s education to encompass the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and the socioeconomic reforms of David Ricardo. Although greatly influenced by Bentham at the outset, Mill soon parted ways with his inspiration after being influenced by two key figures. William Wordsworth the poet who brought an inner transcendental transformation in Mills and Harriet Taylor, an intellectual giant by whom Mills was smitten. Even though Taylor was married, she carried on a correspondence of great intensity with Mill. When Taylor’s husband passed away, she and Mills invariably married.
Admonishing Bentham’s concept of maximizing utility, Mills alleged that his once inspiration saw “in man little but what the vulgarest eye can see.” To justify this surprisingly acerbic assertion, Mills resorted to the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s grasp of the aspects of human condition, which in the opinion of Mills, Benthamites had totally missed. Coleridge in the view of Mills, recognised the “need to develop individuals cultivating their “higher” sentiments, and for them to absorb a sense of community (“cohesion”) with one another”.
However the emphatic argument of Mills that everybody is at liberty to pursue their own freedom so long as such pursuit does not have the undesirable outcome of depriving others of pursuing their own freedom, seems to be mere lip service and a paean to hypocrisy when it comes to his strong support for English colonialism. A man who was gung ho about progressive concepts such as women’s suffrage, when such notions were utterly nascent at the time they were espoused, was very malleable in endorsing the ravaging sweep of the English hegemony over helpless colonies. His qualified defense of colonialism had at its edifice the preposterous notion that such occupation of territories was benevolent since Great Britain strove to usher in progress since “India was still at a great distance from that state.” A laughable proposition, to say the least. The social, scientific and cultural developments in India takes on a civilizational hue and were set in motion when their colonialists were possessed of the wit and wisdom of barbarians.
Kitcher also propounds that a Mill of this era would have imbued a progressive bent and would have tackled the seemingly intractable issues of gun control, rampant inequality, LGBTQ rights etc in an ‘embryonic’ manner. For example, he would have brought the warring factions out of the dangerous anonymity of social media and spurred them to have a civilized discussion, deliberation and debate, where each party patiently hears out the other, expresses its own opinions. At the end of the day such a dignified exchange would result in a middle path acceptable to both the parties. In a world held to ransom by Friedmanite cliques, such notions are closer in relevance to Thomas More’s Utopia than Mill’s Utilitarianism.
“On John Stuart Mill” is an excellent starting point for the eager and the intrepid who wish to plunge into the purpose driven yet ambivalent world of utilitarianism. It is also a marvelous sneak peek into the life and thoughts of a precocious mind which was conflicted by its own divergent reasonings.
(On John Stuart Mill by Philip Kitcher is published by Columbia University Press and will be available for sale beginning 3rd January 2023)
Thank You Net Galley for the Advance Reviewer Copy